Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre tackles Australia’s growing demand for skilled workers in data and computing through innovative STEM training programs, internships, and outreach initiatives, inspiring the next generation of researchers and innovators.
Put simply: Australia is faced with a national skills crisis.
This was the opening statement from the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering (ATSE) in their Oct 2022 report, Our STEM skilled future.
It appears Australia is not alone in a STEM skill crisis. In their 2022 global tech report, a leading global consultancy surveyed 2,200 technology executives and industry experts and found similarly: the top three obstacles for businesses adopting new digital technologies involve skill gaps.
Bringing it back to Australia, who will fill our future STEM jobs?
- 16,000 new quantum jobs by 2040
- 20,000 new space sector jobs by 2030
- 1.2 million tech-related jobs by 2030
It won’t be Australian children as they grow and move into careers, unless Australia changes. Interest in STEM in Australian school-aged students is declining. That falling-off continues into adulthood.
At each level, from primary to secondary to tertiary to the workforce, interest in STEM weakens. This compounds with underrepresented groups. Women in STEM make up only 16% of people with STEM qualifications. Among First Nations people, only .5% hold university-level STEM qualifications.
Ann Backhaus and Fathima Haseen are the Education and Training team at Pawsey. They run Pawsey’s educational outreach and the Learn@Pawsey initiative, which aims to wrap learning activities into engaging experiences.
The pair want to build a lifelong investigative mindset in young Australians, that sets them up from secondary school onwards to have technology skills and an inquisitive mindset to perform research or innovate in their chosen careers.
“STEM is everywhere. In everything. Yes, it’s in the sciences, maths, and technologies, but it’s also in the humanities and the arts. That’s what we really try to give to teachers and students. Be curious. Ask questions. Integrate your thinking, rather than silo it,” said Ann.
The National Skills Commission found between 2013 – 2020, skills demand for artificial intelligence rose 4,412%, machine learning rose 724% and big data rose 384%. This huge increase in demand requires a new generation of workers skilled in complex data and computing tools as well as solid problem-solving skills, resiliency, and creative thinking.
“Australia is facing a challenge. It needs more skilled people. Globally, we’re competing for STEM-qualified, diverse individuals. We have to start engaging and upskilling students to work in a digital world, and in Pawsey’s case, to work with high performance computing. If we wait until individuals graduate to teach them supercomputing skills, for example, then we’re constantly playing catch up. We’re applying a bandage. A STEM mindset and associated skills should be taught from primary on up. ” said Ann.
Pawsey’s Education and Training strategy involves STEM outreach during the three stages of student education: primary, secondary and tertiary. The aim is to inspire students to develop STEM skills to be career-ready and to have fun while doing so. It will also mean future users are prepared for their first research projects at Pawsey.
Pawsey engages secondary school students through tours and hands-on activities. This outreach begins by introducing students to Pawsey and to Pawsey staff, often through a fun and competitive Who’s Who game. We then introduce the main concepts of supercomputing, again using games and activities. We showcase the amazing breadth of science domains through Pawsey’s impressive Visualisation Lab. Students can see how STEM intersects across many fields and practical applications.
“I’ve noticed when most students visit Pawsey, they think it’s all computers; they think that is all they’re going to learn about. But we are connected to many different domains. Students arrive and they are surprised to hear about medicine, genomics and astronomy,” said Fathima.
Learn@Pawsey is one of Pawsey’s online training resources. It provides ready-to-use online modules for teachers to embed into their lessons or to use as an integrated studies project. Learn@Pawsey datasets – created by students for student analysis – encourage them to explore and question the data.
The Learn@Pawsey Sleep Survey dataset, for example, gets students familiar with handling and visualising data. Teachers can create unique class or school identifiers, which students use when answering survey questions. The data from those questions (entirely anonymous) contribute to the global dataset. Teachers can isolate class or school data to compare with globally-created student data, or they can simply use the ever-growing global dataset.
“The students drive this sleep survey, by answering questions about their levels of exercise, their technology (phone) use, and their diet. They can investigate if there is a connection between those things and their sleep. Students create data by answering the questions. We have modules and resources for the teachers. And the teachers and students can watch videos from real sleep scientists, including a couple of cool videos on the scientists setting up sleep studies. Teachers can use the resources as a one-off or together or they can use them as a springboard to create their own teaching activities. .”
Pawsey’s secondary school outreach has grown considerably in recent years. Among other activities, Ann and Fathima also present at teacher conferences and lead Teacher Professional Development sessions. They also participate in school and/or location career expos and summer school activities.
While Pawsey hosts many school outreach events, its largest educational initiative involves training tertiary students. The Pawsey summer internship project invites university students from around Australia to participate in a paid summer internship project. The projects are designed by partner universities and institutions. The summer interns take part in real research questions that require them to work on Pawsey’s supercomputers and/or cloud computers. This means Pawsey is preparing local users to work directly with the centre.
“We have an open call for projects and our list of established partners grows annually. Researchers, universities and other institutes apply. Then there is a selection process where we match projects to our allocations,” said Fathima.
The 2022/2023 Pawsey Summer internship consisted of 33 unique projects from at least 13 different domains including genetics, AI, quantum computing, biology and data science. The internship involved 35,715,000 core hours allocated on Pawsey systems and the equivalent of 408 years of compute time on a single machine.
Pawsey’s recent outreach events include an open day for World Quantum Day, in which students learnt about quantum computing ideas like Grover’s algorithm and superposition through art and talks. They also learnt about Pawsey’s own in-house quantum computer – the first room-temperature quantum computer to be hosted at a supercomputing centre in the world.
For International Women’s Day, Pawsey partnered with a number of partners, including CSIRO, NYSF, ICRAR, SKAO, UWA, and Curtin University, to showcase STEM careers to women, girls and gender-diverse attendees.
“We emphasize diversity and inclusion, and the many paths that can bring you into and keep you engaged in STEM,” said Ann.
“We want young people to develop an interest forever, then build on that and be ready with [technology skills] when they come to Pawsey,” said Fathima.
In 2022, Pawsey received 350 internship applications from 30 universities. From these applicants, 46 interns were chosen to work with the centre. They developed projects to detect credit card fraud, search for extra-terrestrial life and model molecular dynamics.
Through internships and outreach, Pawsey contributes to the State and Federal Government goals of building a globally competitive, innovative Australian workforce. Exposure to HPC in a fun and engaging way encourages students to develop STEM skills and break down barriers to technological education.
“What we do with Education Outreach at Pawsey is only possible through our many, many partnerships and collaborations. These happen within Pawsey and CSIRO, with our teacher partners, with our university and institutional partners, and beyond. We couldn’t do what we do today without them,” said Ann.